Sabrina Thompson is an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with an education in atmospheric physics as well. As a flight and dynamics engineer, Thompson designs orbits and trajectories for space missions. She also develops technologies for spacecraft and small satellites and has been patented. With her love for art, she built GIRL IN SPACE CLUB, a platform for young and creative minds in STEM.
STEM to the Sky
Jul 5, 2022
When I was younger, I thought I would be either a basketball player, or a famous artist. I still enjoy making art, but I gave up the basketball days a long time ago. It was my art teacher who introduced me to mechanical engineering and I just loved the courses, I loved the challenge of solving problems.
(Credit: Dejah Greene)
My first year in college was actually very difficult for me. I was not academically prepared to keep up with my peers who had seen calculus before I did and had taken college level physics and classes of that nature. After my freshman year, and every summer after that, I did an internship. I worked in product development and design. I worked with industrial designers to design different types of products using CAD systems such as AutoCAD. The next summer, I worked in the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. I really liked the research environment. Another summer, I worked at Honda Manufacturing Corporation in Ohio, where I learned that I liked working on complex systems. I put all those factors that I liked about each internship together, so in graduate school, I did an internship at NASA Glenn in Ohio and that’s when I knew I had to work at this place.
I had all of this schooling behind me, but I still needed to perform on the job training. Once I arrived at NASA, I still had to learn how to do my job. I understood math, I understood how to code, I understood science, and I understood how to solve problems, but I didn’t know how to design orbits and trajectories until I started working at NASA. The skills that I already had put me in a position to be able to then learn how to design orbits and trajectories for NASA missions.
For an upcoming mission or a concept of a mission, I come up with feasible orbits or trajectory designs for that mission. I work very closely with the scientists, propulsion engineers, and some of the other engineers, depending on what type of mission it is.
Working with scientists and propulsion engineers is crucial at this stage because I need to know, why are we doing this? What is the point of the mission? Where are we trying to go? Let’s say we’re trying to go to Mars. There are existing orbits and trajectories that have been designed to go to Mars, so what is so special about what we will be doing? These are the questions that I have to ask in order to come up with a feasible design. What type of propulsion system do we have? Will we be using an electric propulsion system or chemical, because that affected design. Is there a cost cap? How much money do we have for this mission, because that will also have an effect on our options. I take this stuff into consideration, and I come up with a few designs that would actually work to get us, let’s say, in this case, to Mars. Sometimes we just want to do a flyby, or we might actually want to orbit, while other times, we might want to drop off small satellites.
In my field, there’s a lot of math and dynamics involved. You need to understand how things move on Earth, and in space and the atmosphere. You have to take all these things into consideration when you’re designing orbit and trajectory.
(Credit: Torren Moore)
I developed that product a few years ago with a team of engineers, and the purpose of developing this technology was to be able to use our knowledge of space to locate our spacecraft. For instance, stars. We typically know where stars are in relation to Earth. We also know where the moon is in relation to Earth at any given point in time. If we use these systems together, we can then figure out the position of a spacecraft system.
Let’s say you have a mothership: a satellite that holds the equipment to communicate back to Earth. We also have another satellite but it only talks to the mothership. If we have these two spacecraft that are talking to each other, how do we know the position of the non-mothership spacecraft in relation to the mothership, and then in relation to the Earth? We use the positions of stars that we know, and let’s say some other celestial body, like the moon. We use all this information to be able to continuously track the position of both of these satellites in relation to each other. And that’s just an example.
There are lots of different projects you can work on at NASA. My team of engineers and I wrote a proposal to get a U.S. patent for developing this technology. There’s something called technology readiness levels. We developed the technology to a certain level. We could continue or have someone else come and continue its development. But, we need money and funding to do that.
Another factor is that since we’re the government, we develop technologies to fulfill the NASA mission, which is to explore and put out information to the public about Earth and our universe, as well as develop technologies that could be used beyond what we intended it for. At the moment, I’m not doing anything else with that technology as far as developing it. I’ve moved on to other components related to satellite constellations. Now, I’m looking at using autonomous systems to have the spacecraft in a constellation talk to each other and maneuver relative to each other to take some science data that we can’t do with one spacecraft.
In August of last year, I completed my graduate degree in atmospheric physics. There was a gentleman who unfortunately passed away a few years ago, Dr. Pierre Sellars. He was an astronaut, the director of the Earth Science Division at NASA Goddard, and my mentor. Shadowing him made me realize I didn’t want to just design orbits and trajectories but also learn more about the climate change issue. He suggested I go back to school and learn the science, and so I did.
At the moment, a future Earth Science concept we’re looking at is using a constellation of satellites to learn more about climate change, clouds, and aerosols. Aerosols include dust particles, pollution, and all the things that could alter the clouds, the climate, and the ocean. I wrote a paper with a few scientists looking at a combination of orbits with a polarimeter, which would allow us to answer questions on how clouds and aerosols interact and how that might affect the climate.
Another Earth Science project I worked on is a mission launching in 2024 called PACE. PACE will help us answer questions related to our oceans. We have different ocean colors. Why? A lot of it boils down to different types of phytoplankton and algae blooms. How is that affecting us? How is that affecting everything in the ocean? How’s that affecting the climate? These are questions that are very important to me because this is home for us.
(Credit: Sabrina Thompson)
It was exciting when I was able to physically go to work. At NASA Goddard, you could find someone coming to work in flip flops and a Hawaiian t-shirt. You can meet up with colleagues to discuss things or solve problems. There are lots of seminars that go on throughout the week. There are always opportunities to learn outside of whatever projects you’re working on and to collaborate with people. It’s a very friendly environment with lots of sharing of information. If I am stuck on a problem, I could just walk down the hallway to one of the flight dynamics gurus who enacts them since they have probably seen a problem like this before and solved it a million times.
A lot of my work is done on the computer so sometimes I can put my headphones on, zone out, and sit there for a good amount of time designing orbits. Sometimes, I need to be in meetings and talk with scientists or some of the other engineers. I am a very curious person so I will just go into somebody’s office and talk to them about what their work is. It’s always a great opportunity to learn. I network a lot at work, that’s how I get on certain projects. These days, I’m at home working. A lot of my work is done on the computer. Sometimes I go to coffee shops to do work to change my surroundings. But we’re slowly getting back to the office.
The biggest thing that has helped me is being open minded, and being really open to learning from others and collaborating with others. My form of communication that works best for me is visual because I’m an artist. So I can draw anything. Some people are better with their words, some people are better with looking at numbers or reading things. Be prepared to be a team player. Be prepared to have fun solving problems because that’s what this is all about: solving problems to really understand our environment and the universe. I would also say just be curious. Ask questions. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.
Also, think outside of the box. Just because we did it one way for the past 20-30 years, that does not mean we have to continue doing it that way. Whether it’s solving problems or approaching problems, you could be the one who develops a new technology that allows us to live life or perform research or look at data in a completely different way. Do not limit yourself and your ideas.
“Do not limit yourself and your ideas.”
I’m one of those people who tend to get bored easily if I know how to solve a problem in so many different ways. For me, it’s very important to continue to learn because there are so many things that we don’t know about, say, Earth. It’s a lifelong learning experience here at NASA and that’s something I really enjoy. It never gets old and boring. There’s always new things to explore. My colleagues love what they do. For some people, they probably wouldn’t even have to get paid to do the job. They love it so much. So when you’re working with people like that, it’s easy to have that spirit, or rub off on. It also allows for a happy workplace. So that’s something I really like about working at NASA Goddard specifically.
What keeps me going is the fact that there are so many unanswered questions. It’s critical for us to continue to push forward as far as our understanding of our universe. We’re talking about going to Mars, that is huge. Setting up a habitat on the moon, having the moon be a pit stop on the way to Mars, is insane. What about the technology that has to be developed for us to get there? How are we going to communicate back home? The different systems that need to be set up? How are we going to survive on Mars? And that’s just one part of exploring our universe. There are so many lifetimes of research, development, and exploration that can be afforded at a place like NASA. I don’t have the pressure to perform at the same level as somebody who works in the private sector nor do I have to produce, because it’s not about profit. It’s about our understanding of our universe.
“There are so many lifetimes of research, development, and exploration that can be afforded at a place like NASA.”
I’m most proud of getting back into being a creative person. I put a lot of time into developing myself as an engineer. I would call myself a budding scientist because I’m just getting into the science side of things. Nonetheless, I’ve naturally always been an artist and a creative person. With that, I found a way to blend those two worlds by creating a company called GIRL IN SPACE CLUB, where I develop STEM-based services and products like clothing and art. I also have a stimulating art program, where I teach kids STEM concepts in art projects. That’s my way of giving back to the community. It’s also my way of inspiring the next generation to go beyond and do more than somebody like myself has done and to chase after their dreams.
“[GIRL IN SPACE CLUB] is my way of giving back to the community. It’s also my way of inspiring the next generation to go beyond and do more than somebody like myself has done and to chase after their dreams.”
(Credit: Pat Bourque)